Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Last Boat Ride

My passport is expiring soon, and today I had an appointment to go to the American Embassy to renew it. All of the available appointments are early, so there’s no opportunity to schedule one in times of less traffic congestion. This can be a source of anxiety for Bangkok residents.

My appointment was for 8:45 am. They’ll let you in if you arrive within a half hour of the appointment time. Before that, you must stand outside. There is no comfortable alternative. The Embassy is located in central Bangkok, and I live on the other side of the nightmare eye of the traffic hurricane that surrounds us every day. No, that’s not a good metaphor; the eye of a hurricane is calm. The “eye” of this nightmare is gridlocked.

I gave a lot of thought to my travel plans. There’s no way to accurately predict travel time, so I tried to build in a pause for coffee when I was almost there. I decided to leave by 7:00 am to beat the worst of the traffic.

No need for suspense; I got there on time.

I walked out to the soi at about 6:45 am and I was lucky enough to get a taxi right away. If you want to go into the deep traffic, you are expected to ask the taxi driver if he feels like going there. The first fellow that passed by was gracious enough to say yes.

All the way to the Embassy was too much to ask, so I took the cab to the closest stop on the Sky Train. The traffic was heavy, but we got there within a half hour. I took the Sky Train for five stops and arrived at the head of the Embassy’s street at 7:45 am. The trains were crowded enough to remind me of the old Lexington Avenue line at rush hour in New York. Like the Lex, I had to wait until the third train that reached the station before I could actually board it, and the train itself was densely packed. It had only taken an hour to get to my planned coffee stop, and there was a nice place handy to take a break in. Twenty minutes of calm. When the time came, I walked around the corner and took a taxi motorcycle down to the Embassy.

The Embassy in Bangkok is interesting. Everyone seems to be very nice; they even seem to be in a good mood almost all of the time. Things usually go well, and they went very well today. It was smiles all around. I was out by 9:00 am.

My first idea was to try to get a taxi to take me all the way home. When they heard the destination, however, three cab drivers in a row just made a face and said, no way, too much traffic jam. I flagged a taxi motorcycle and asked him to take me back to the Sky Train station. Along the way we had a lovely shouted conversation in Thai and he advised me to take the boat. “No traffic jam.” He could take me to the boat, too, for only double the usual fare. (One dollar instead of fifty cents.) I gave him a small tip and he took off his surgical mask so that he could smile at me and say thanks. That’s Thailand.

The boat was a lot more of an adventure than I had remembered. I’ve ridden the canal taxis many times, but it’s been three years since the last time. Two fellows that were also waiting had a great time teasing me about this and that. They were friendly about it, though, making sure that I knew where I was going and which direction to take the boat. (The boats going in either direction stop at the same pier, which may be on one side of the canal or the other.)

The first boat stopped, well no, it didn’t really stop. Usually they stop and a boatman jumps off with a rope and ties the boat against the pier at the front. Then the driver reverses the engines, which drives the back of the boat into the pier against the pull of the rope. This guy today just idled the boat along for about fifteen feet, about a foot from the pier. The other two men jumped on, but that was more Jackie Chan than I have in me. I waited for the next boat.

I got on the next one with some awkwardness but no real danger. That boat made a more conventional stop. I took a seat and paid my sixteen baht (forty-five cents). The ride lasted about twenty-five minutes, and the levels of vibration and noxious fumes were incredible. I mean that literally, as in, “hard to believe.” I thought that I would lose a filling. These are very long, narrow boats that are driven by big, mostly Volvo marine diesel engines. The vibration was so great that my entire skull was in a sympathetic vibration. Due to the shaking, my eyes would not focus properly.  When I got off at the stop closest to my condo I said a silent prayer.

The last part of the journey was a longish walk, back a ways to the nearest bridge, then up the other side of the canal, and then up into my neighborhood. I was in enough of a lather when I got home that I stood in a cool shower for ten minutes. By this three part route, I got home in about one hour.

I’m not complaining, mind you, well maybe about the boat’s vibrations. We are in our rainy season, and it didn’t rain a drop through the entire adventure. Rain makes everything exponentially worse, and if there are flash floods from the tropical rain you can sit in essentially the same place for hours. I always try to recognize and appreciate good luck.

A last word on American Embassies in foreign countries: they’re not all the same, either in tone or in execution. The only other one that I had occasion to deal with was the Embassy in Singapore. Singapore is not a friendly place to begin with, and the Embassy felt like spending a weekend at Gestapo headquarters. I needed help, too, and boy, did I NOT get it. And I was in the Peace Corps at the time, which made me an employee of the Federal Government of the United States, with a GS rating and two ID cards and everything. It’s a long story, so I won’t tell it here, but I was very glad that day to be the lucky man that I am. I managed to extricate myself from a shaky situation by reason and good fortune, with hardly a dollar left in my pocket. No thanks to the American Embassy in Singapore. I laugh when they try to push Singapore as a travel destination. Why anyone would want to go to that mean-spirited police state is beyond me. The employees at the Embassy there, both local hires and American citizens, are way into the mean-spirited thing, too.

Adventure CAN be fun; returning home is ALWAYS fun. 

Ah! It’s starting to rain! 


Marina Grande Halifax said...

I never had the pleasure of Thailand. I never found Singapore unfriendly, but they aren't overly friendly either to your point. Very very clean though.

fred c said...

It's a funny place. The Chinese taxi drivers that I knew in Singapore were terrific, very friendly and helpful. The non-Chinese taxi drivers were rude and unhelpful in the extreme. Funny place, but clean.